Apple's parental controls prevent kids from searching for 'Asian' things

The company apparently thinks I am adult content.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Apple has spent years ensuring its smartphones and tablets can be safely used by kids, but some of its family-friendly content controls are over-zealous — and seemingly prejudiced. According to a report from The Independent today, content controls built into iOS 14’s Screen Time feature meant to limit access to adult websites also block users from searching for the word “Asian” in Safari and other browsers.

The block doesn’t just disallow searches for that one word — it also applies to related ideas and phrases. “Asian food” is off-limits, as are terms like “Asian fusion,” “Asian diaspora,” “Asian communities”, “Asian countries” and “Asian politics”, “Asian cultures” and “Asian hairstyles”. Strangely, the one thematically appropriate term we tried that Apple’s parental controls did allow was “Asian restaurants”, even though related queries like “Asian cuisine” were rejected. Meanwhile, searches for similar terms with the words “European,” “African,” “Indian” or “Arab” in place of “Asian” resolved just fine.

At this point, it is unclear exactly how Apple decides which terms its parental controls should disallow access to. For better or worse, though, the company didn’t do a very thorough job enforcing these particular content restrictions. If you search for the word “Asian” — or one of many related terms — in Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo or even Baidu, your browser will tell you you can’t browse the page because “it is restricted.” That’s true whether you type a search query into your mobile browser’s address bar, or if you navigate to a search engine’s homepage and attempt the search from there. Strangely, Yahoo is the only search engine available Apple offers as a default option in Safari that handles these searches correctly.

(Full disclosure: Yahoo and Engadget have the same parent company, but this in no way affected how we approached this story; this is all just a really weird coincidence.)

Perhaps most concerning is the fact that literally none of this is new news. The Independent’s report cites a recent tweet from iOS developer Steven Shen, who — before tweeting about the situation recently — spotted the screw-up and filed a report on the matter to Apple in late 2019. Not long after, in February 2020, Screen Time’s expected bias was flagged on Twitter by Charlie Stigler, a product strategist at enterprise services company Workday.

“iOS built-in adult content filter blocks all searches with the keyword “Asian,” assuming it’s porn-related,” Stigler wrote at the time. “Which means a 12 y/o Chinese-American girl might Google “Asian hairstyles” and find out that her culture is blocked as ‘adult content.’”

As we now know, those efforts to change Apple’s approach here have not worked. We have reached out to the company for comment, and will update this story if it responds.